Credit where due: "I Love Trouble" is a soundly engineered, professionally astute entertainment machine that, while avoiding any dangerous taint of distinction, offers a neatly crafted confection of laughs and thrills.
Inspired by the screwball newspaper comedies of the Thirties and Forties -- "It Happened One Night" and "His Girl Friday" come to mind -- it follows the love-hate-love relationship of a couple of hotshot Chicago reporters trying to get the inevitable big story while falling in love, dodging quips, put-downs and Uzi bursts all the way.
Its best thing is the devious and provocative sexual dynamic between two exceedingly handsome co-stars, Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte. The issue between them is always bed, i.e., will he get her there? But it's expressed in a number of deeply amusing symbolic dodges, in which the stakes in the contest of getting the story are secretly sexual. And the more they deny the inferno of chemistry between them, the more they say no to the milkshake of hormones gurgling through their blood, the funnier it gets.
The movie takes off from a cynical proposition, not that all is fair in love and journalism but that love is war. These two immediately begin sniping at each other, as they fall into axiomatic postures of hostility. You can tell that they like each other by the way they hate each other.
Shakespeare may have invented the recipe, Tracy and Hepburn may have refined it, but Nolte and Roberts certainly hold their own.
The way writers and producer-director Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer (a mister and missus team that created "Private Benjamin" and "Father of the Bride") set it up, Nolte is Peter Brackett, the big dog of the Chicago Chronicle, a thin version of that city's Tribune. Not only that, this extraordinarily talented man has also published a novel. No wonder he's so cool!
Anyway, rushed downstate to cover a seemingly accidental train wreck, who should he find himself matched against but cub reporter Sabrina Peterson (Roberts) of the Windy City's second best, the Chicago Globe (analogous to the Sun-Times).
Nolte seems to have taken to heart the judgment delivered upon him in the unfortunate "I'll Do Anything," where Joely Richardson said, "He's just not sexy." In this movie, he's nothing if not sexy. Is it just a better cinematographer or is he getting 6,000 TTC milligrams of Vitamins A-Z injected every day? Even his hair is great. Is he a man or a mousse? He's both: He's positively abloom, aglow, afire with ruddy male beauty and confidence.
As an anthropological aside, I should note there's nothing in him that's very Chicago: He has no wind-whipped pallor or harsh nasal accent -- he's like a golden California palomino magically alchemized into a man in a $3,000 wardrobe.
As for Roberts, what a toot. She's got spunk and although I hate spunk, I'm happy to put that prejudice on the shelf for a couple of hours. A sense of mischief flickers through her wise eyes, in constant conflict with her ambition and her deep sense of irony. It's a lively, affecting performance and you can see why she's the current "it" girl, even if you have no idea what "it" is.
The problem with "I Love Trouble" is that it loves trouble too much. As consistently amusing as the Nolte-Roberts fireworks are, they're constantly battling a conspiracy plot that, while marginally original (it involves a Midwestern issue, bovine genetics, a plot to turn all cows into superbossies), is absurdly overwrought. It's too much about too little. All the hubbub, bub, is solved in a single second when someone discovers -- brace yourself -- microfilm hidden in a ballpoint pen.
Worse still is the plague of movie culture, a thing called unexamined violence. I'm no prig, I like violence in movies. But this kind I hate: an absurdly high body count including five innocents in the train wreck, a father and a son, a 20-year-old boy, two professional assassins, an unctuous PR guy and a partridge in a pear tree, many of whom are eliminated bloodily before our very eyes, and yet without a whisper, a feather, of dramatic weight.
The deaths are meaningless: no one ever says, "OH MY GOD PEOPLE ARE DYING!" and sits down, shaken and ashen. And all this in a PG movie (not a PG-13). Death, where is thy sting?
It doesn't help that as a director, Shyer is a complete novice at portraying action on the screen, and thus the occasional gunfight or chase has a particularly banal quality about it, a perfunctory offhandedness that makes them utterly unconvincing.
He should stick to the war between the sexes, at which he's a perfect warrior: as a chronicler of the war between the tough guys, he's a total washout.
"I Love Trouble"
Starring Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte
Directed by Charles Shyer
Released by Touchstone